Everyone knows where it is in Miami. You don’t have to give the address or further explanation to get to the Versailles restaurant, which this year celebrates half a century as a bastion of Cuban food, political “trench” of the exiles and scene of angry protests against the communist regime in Havana.
The most recent? Last July, when Cubans in Miami rallied on several occasions in front of the Versailles, on Calle Ocho, the axis of the populous neighborhood of Little Havana, in support of the thousands of compatriots who took to the streets of the island to protest the lack of freedom and fed up with the economic crisis.
The history and daily life of the Cuban community in Miami, of its diaspora, is inconceivable without this family restaurant founded in 1971 by Cuban Felipe Valls, who arrived in Miami in 1960, at the age of 25, after the dictatorship stole his family’s various businesses, including a bottle importer, a gas station and a small nightclub, the Lido.
Starting from scratch
“My father, like so many other Cubans, arrived in Miami with one ‘hand in front and one behind’ and started working in a restaurant as a dishwasher and then they signed him up in a refrigeration and hospitality equipment company,” Felipe Valls Jr, who was two years old when his parents left the island, tells Efe.
With an advance of one month’s salary granted to him by the owner of the company he worked for, Valls began to successfully import coffee machines from Italy and Spain. Soon he was running his first restaurant. Badía, and, after selling it well a few years later, he “bought the land where the first part of the Versailles is located”.
Five decades later, with two extensions of the premises and some other modifications, the famous Versailles preserves its good Creole cuisine and that slightly “kitsch” French air of its bright interior, with large windows and engraved period mirrors.
A decoration “that has not much to do with the Cuban thing -recognizes with humor Valls Jr.- and that was thought at the beginning to welcome the artists and the night show business, poets and singers that then met at night” in that “first” Versailles.
It is difficult to say when and how the Versailles became the neuralgic and sentimental center of the Cuban exile. For the founder’s son, it has been the media itself that has been building the legend of this place as an emblem of the anti-Castro struggle and the feelings of the exiles.
Perhaps it all began, he notes, with the governor and later senator for Florida Bob Graham, who during an election campaign launched the strategy “A day in the life of a…”, whereby one day he summoned the media at Versailles and he “appeared dressed as a waiter’s assistant, with his green jacket, working on the floor as a busboy… And he won the election”, says Valls Jr. with amusement.
Today it is an obligatory stop, especially at election time, for politicians who come to savor their coffee (they have their own coffee bean roaster) and to be seen at the “little window” of the place, an invention of the founder that today should be a cultural heritage of Miami-Dade County.
“Having a Cuban coffee at the window has become almost a toast to our community,” he says.
And there are many Cubans who thread memories and nostalgia and form small groups by the window where the waitresses dispense Cuban coffee, cortaditos, coladitas and guava pastries and croquettes to the clientele.
Local and national politicians of all political stripes must have told themselves that the Versailles was the ideal place to “show respect and sympathy to the Cuban exile community and ask for their opinion,” he says.
Virtually all U.S. presidents since at least Ronald Reagan have passed through the Versailles, with the exception of Barack Obama, who earned the rejection of the exile community for his policy of “thawing” relations with the Cuban dictatorship.
Versailles: a must for politicians
Perhaps the presidents most remembered by the loyal Cuban clientele of Versailles, he continues, are George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) and his son George W. Bush (2001-2009), who received “a lot of affection in the county (Miami-Dade).”
But former President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) also appeared at the Versailles after his re-election and enjoyed a tasty buffet of roast suckling pig, black beans and yucca, topped off with coffee in the “hall of mirrors.”
Clinton assured “that it was the best cortadito coffee he had ever had in his life, although I don’t know if he had ever had another cortadito before”, laughs Valls Jr. The truth is that when the Democrat traveled to Miami “he used to stop by Versailles and have a cortadito.”
But the greatest pride for the Valls family is to have maintained the appreciation of its numerous clientele with a traditional, family recipe book, a “grandmother’s cuisine”, he says, based on the “maximum quality” of the dishes they offer, such as palomilla (beef steak), ropa vieja, arroz con pollo, caldo gallego (Galician broth) or masitas de puerco.
The official celebration of these five decades of life of the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world will take place on November 10.
The Valls family wants to celebrate this half-century with the creation of a public archive that collects personal stories, graphic material and memories of its customers, for which it has launched, together with the History Miami Museum, the initiative “¿Cuál es tu historia en Versailles?“.